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The Evolution Of American Barbeque


Barbecue, if there's one gastronomical pleasure that might give the typical American apple pie a run for its money, it's barbecue. The culinary practice of cooking meat slowly over an indirect flame (the genuine meaning of barbecue – take heed, imposters who grill) has become so popular over the years that it has spawned TV shows, historically-focused road trips, and even fusion recipes like BBQ tacos. Barbecue's tendency to mirror whatever is popular at the time (from reality TV to the taco craze) isn't new; in fact, barbecue has a long history of permeation, probably best exemplified by the South's continuing barbecue rivalry. The "barbecue belt," which stretches from the Atlantic to the Gulf and is bordered on the west by Texas and Kansas City, is home to four unique barbecue traditions: Carolina, Texas, Memphis, and Kansas City. Where did these traditions originate, and how have they grown along such disparate pathways in such a small part of the country? The history of American barbecue is as varied as the varieties themselves, tracing the course of a Caribbean cooking method brought north by Spanish conquistadors, transported westward by settlers, and seasoned with Black seasonings.


The first indigenous tribes Christopher Columbus visited on Hispaniola had evolved a unique way for cooking meat over an indirect flame, utilizing green wood to keep the food (and wood) from burning. According to reports, the Spanish called this new method of cooking barbacoa, which means "original barbecue." The cooking technique was carried north by the Spanish adventurers who accompanied Columbus on their journeys. In 1540, at present-day Tupelo, Mississippi, the Chicksaw tribe prepared a hog feast over the barbacoa in the presence of explorer Hernando de Soto. The technology eventually found its way to the colonies, traveling as far as Virginia.


Residents of the barbecue belt might claim that beef-based barbecue in Texas and mutton-based barbecue in Kentucky aren't true barbecues. Purists like North Carolina native Jim Villas claim that true barbecue requires only porcine meat because the first BBQ-ers of the southern colonies relied on pig farming's low-cost, low-maintenance nature. Pigs, unlike cows, did not require enormous amounts of grain or enclosed facilities and could be released into the wild to eat when food supplies were low. After being left to fend for themselves in the wild, the pigs were significantly thinner when slaughtered, prompting Southerners to utilize slow-and-low grilling to tenderize the meat.


The habit of holding neighborhood barbecues was well-established by the end of the colonial period, but it was in the fifty years leading up to the Civil War that the traditions connected with huge barbecues became cemented. Plantation owners staged enormous, joyous barbecues on a regular basis, including "pig pickin's" for slaves. Pork production became increasingly vital during the pre-Civil War period, because of a groundswell of regional patriotism. Pork production provided a way for Southerners to develop self-sufficient food. The movement began in Carolina and spread westward, finally reaching Texas. German settlers in Texas had access to land where they could raise cattle, and it wasn't long before Texans were adapting Carolina skills to a whole new species. Memphis' geographically distinct sweet, tomato-based barbecue sauce arose from the city's reputation as a popular Mississippi Riverport. Residents of Memphis had easy access to a range of commodities, including molasses, which gave the region its sweet barbecue flavor. The last of America's four main barbecue types, Kansas City barbecue, was born from Memphis' barbecue of Southern pork for Southern patriots because relatively little of the pork produced was exported out of the South. Farmers began to feed their hogs as they grew bigger to get them ready for slaughter.


Barbecue was popular at church picnics, political rallies, and private celebrations in the nineteenth century. Barbecues were a popular and relatively inexpensive way to push for votes, and political rally organizers would supply barbecue, lemonade, and, more often than not, a little alcohol. Journalist Jonathan Daniels, writing in the mid-twentieth century, maintained that "Barbecue is the dish which binds together the taste of both the people of the big house and the poorest occupants of the back end of the broken-down barn". These get-togethers were also a great way for students from different classes to mingle. Barbecue was not a class-based cuisine, and big groups of people from all walks of life could come together to eat, drink, and listen to campaign speeches. Barbecues held by politicians and churches were among the first examples of this practice. Church barbecues, where a roasted pig was served alongside covered delicacies cooked by the congregation's females


Kansas City barbecue, according to expert Dotty Griffith, is the greatest fusion of East and West (Texas) barbeque. However, history can only go so far in explaining the pleasure that occurs when the meat comes into contact with smoke (and sometimes sauce). Barbecue fans who want to sample the various flavors of America's four barbecue types aren't alone; in fact, the allure of the barbecue belt has enticed many to visit the region. Travel routes have been recommended for meat connoisseurs wishing to enjoy slow-cooked meat, however for those truly interested in expanding their BBQ skills,

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